Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Antony and Cleopatra
By Guglielmo Ferrero (1871–1942)
From ‘Characters and Events of Roman History’

IN the light of these considerations, the conduct of Antony becomes very clear. The marriage at Antioch, by which he places Egypt under the Roman protectorate, is the decisive act of a policy that looks to transporting the centre of his government toward the Orient, to be able to accomplish more securely the conquest of Persia. Antony, the heir of Cæsar, the man who held the papers of the Dictator, who knew his hidden thoughts, who wished to complete the plans cut off by his death, proposes to conquer Persia; to conquer Persia, he must rely on the Oriental provinces that were the natural basis of operations for the great enterprise; among these, Antony must support himself above all on Egypt, the richest and most civilized and most able to supply him with the necessary funds, of which he was quite in want. Therefore he married the Cleopatra whom, it was said at Rome, Cæsar himself had wished to marry—with whom, at any rate, Cæsar had much dallied and intrigued. Does not this juxtaposition of facts seem luminous to you? In 36 B.C., Antony marries Cleopatra, as a few years before he had married Octavia, the sister of the future Augustus, for political reasons—in order to be able to dispose of the political subsidies and finances of Egypt, for the conquest of Persia. The conquest of Persia is the ultimate motive of all his policy, the supreme explanation of his every act.  1
  However, little by little, this move, made on both sides from considerations of political interest, altered its character under the action of events, of time, through the personal influence of Antony and Cleopatra upon each other, and above all, the power that Cleopatra acquired over Antony; here is truly the most important part of all this story. Those who have read my history know that I have recounted hardly any of the anecdotes, more or less odd or entertaining, with which ancient writers describe the intimate life of Antony and Cleopatra, because it is impossible to discriminate in them the part that is fact from that which was invented or exaggerated by political enmity. In history the difficulty of recognizing the truth gradually increases as one passes from political to private life; because in politics the acts of men and of parties are always bound together by either causes or effects of which a certain number is always exactly known; private life, on the other hand, is, as it were, isolated and secret, almost invariably impenetrable. What a great man of state does in his own house, his valet knows better than the historians of later times.  2
  If for these reasons I have thought it prudent not to accept in my work the stories and anecdotes that the ancients recount of Antony and Cleopatra, without indeed risking to declare them false, it is, on the contrary, not possible to deny that Cleopatra gradually acquired great ascendency over the mind of Antony. The circumstance is of itself highly probable. That Cleopatra was perhaps a Venus, as the ancients say, or that she was provided with but a mediocre beauty, as declare the portraits, matters little; it is, however, certain that she was a woman of great cleverness and culture; as woman and queen of the richest and most civilized realm of the ancient world, she was mistress of all those arts of pleasure, of luxury, or elegance, that are the most delicate and intoxicating fruit of all mature civilizations. Cleopatra might refigure, in the ancient world, the wealthiest, most elegant, and cultured Parisian lady in the world of to-day.  3
  Antony, on the other hand, was the descendant of a family of that Roman nobility which still preserved much rustic roughness in tastes, ideas, habits; he grew up in times in which the children were still given Spartan training; he came to Egypt from a nation which, notwithstanding its military and diplomatic triumphs, could be considered, compared with Egypt, only poor, rude, and barbarous. Upon this intelligent man, eager for enjoyment, who had, like other noble Romans, already begun to taste the charms of intellectual civilization, it was not Cleopatra alone that made the keenest of impressions, but all Egypt, the wonderful city of Alexandria, the sumptuous palace of the Ptolemies—all that refined, elegant splendor of which he found himself at one stroke the master. What was there at Rome to compare with Alexandria?—Rome, in spite of its imperial power, abandoned to a fearful disorder by the disregard of factions, encumbered with ruin, its streets narrow and wretched, provided as yet with but a single forum, narrow and plain, the sole impressive monument of which was the theatre of Pompey; Rome, where the life was yet crude, and objects of luxury so rare that they had to be brought from the distant Orient. At Alexandria, instead, the Paris of the ancient world, were to be found all the best and most beautiful things of the earth. There was a sumptuosity of public edifices that the ancients never tire of extolling—the quay seven stadia long, the lighthouse famous all over the Mediterranean, the marvelous zoölogical garden, the Museum, the Gymnasium, innumerable temples, the unending palace of the Ptolemies. There was an abundance, unheard of for those times, of objects of luxury—rugs, glass, stuffs, papyruses, jewels, artistic pottery—because they made all these things at Alexandria. There was an abundance, greater than elsewhere, of silks, of perfumes, of gems, of all the things imported from the extreme East, because through Alexandria passed one of the most frequented routes of Indo-Chinese commerce. There, too, were innumerable artists, writers, philosophers, and savants; society life and intellectual life alike fervid; continuous movement to and fro of traffic, continual passing of rare and curious things; countless amusements; life, more than elsewhere, safe—at least so it was believed—because at Alexandria were the great schools of medicine and the great scientific physicians.  4
  If other Italians who landed in Alexandria were dazzled by so many splendors, Antony ought to have been blinded; he entered Alexandria as King. He who was born at Rome in the small and simple house of an impoverished noble family, who had been brought up with Latin parsimony to eat frugally, to drink wine only on festival occasions, to wear the same clothes a long time, to be served by a single slave—this man found himself lord of the immense palace of the Ptolemies, where the kitchens alone were a hundred times larger than the house of his fathers at Rome; where there were gathered for his pleasure the most precious treasures and the most marvelous collections of works of art; where there were trains of servants at his command, and every wish could be immediately gratified. It is therefore not necessary to suppose that Antony was foolishly enamored of the Queen of Egypt, to understand the change that took place in him after their marriage, as he tasted the inimitable life of Alexandria, that elegance, that ease, that wealth, that pomp without equal.  5
  A man of action, grown in simplicity, toughened by a rude life, he was all at once carried into the midst of the subtlest and most highly developed civilization of the ancient world and given the greatest facilities to enjoy and abuse it that ever man had: as might have been expected, he was intoxicated; he contracted an almost insane passion for such a life; he adored Egypt with such ardor as to forget for it the nation of his birth and the modest home of his boyhood. And then began the great tragedy of his life, a tragedy not love-inspired, but political. As the hold of Egypt strengthened on his mind, Cleopatra tried to persuade him not to conquer Persia, but to accept openly the kingdom of Egypt, to found with her and with their children a new dynasty, and to create a great new Egyptian Empire, adding to Egypt the better part of the provinces that Rome possessed in Africa and in Asia, abandoning Italy and the provinces of the West forever to their destiny.  6
  Cleopatra had thought to snatch from Rome its Oriental Empire by the arm of Antony, in that immense disorder of revolution; to reconstruct the great Empire of Egypt, placing at its head the first general of the time, creating an army of Roman legionaries with the gold of the Ptolemies; to make Egypt and its dynasty the prime potentate of Africa and Asia, transferring to Alexandria the political and diplomatic control of the finest parts of the Mediterranean world.  7
  As the move failed, men have deemed it folly and stupidity; but he who knows how easy it is to be wise after events, will judge this confused policy of Cleopatra less curtly. At any rate, it is certain that her scheme failed more because of its own inconsistencies than through the vigor and ability with which Rome tried to thwart it; it is certain that in the execution of the plan, Antony felt first in himself the tragic discord between Orient and Occident that was so long to lacerate the Empire; and of that tragic discord he was the first victim. An enthusiastic admirer of Egypt, an ardent Hellenist, he is lured by his great ambition to be king of Egypt, to renew the famous line of the Ptolemies, to continue in the East the glory and the traditions of Alexander the Great: but the far-away voice of his fatherland still sounds in his ear; he recalls the city of his birth, the Senate in which he rose so many times to speak, the Forum of his orations, the Comitia that elected him to magistracies; Octavia, the gentlewoman he had wedded with the sacred rites of Latin monogamy; the friends and soldiers with whom he had fought through so many countries in so many wars; the foundation principles at home that ruled the family, the state, morality, public and private.  8
  Cleopatra’s scheme, viewed from Alexandria, was an heroic undertaking, almost divine, that might have lifted him and his scions to the delights of Olympus; seen from Rome, by his childhood’s friends, by his comrades in arms, by that people of Italy who still so much admired him, it was the shocking crime of faithlessness to his country; we call it high treason. Therefore he hesitates long, doubting most of all whether he can keep for the new Egyptian Empire the Roman legions, made up largely of Italians, all commanded by Italian officers. He does not know how to oppose a resolute No to the insistences of Cleopatra and loose himself from the fatal bond that keeps him near her; he cannot go back to live in Italy after having dwelt as king in Alexandria. Moreover, he does not dare declare his intentions to his Roman friends, fearing they will scatter; to the soldiers, fearing they will revolt; to Italy, fearing her judgment of him as a traitor; and so, little by little, he entangles himself in the crooked policy, full of prevarications, of expedients, of subterfuges, of one mistake upon another, that leads him to Actium.  9
  I think I have shown that Antony succumbed in the famous war not because, mad with love, he abandoned the command in the midst of the battle, but because his armies revolted and abandoned him when they understood what he had not dared declare to them openly: that he meant to dismember the Empire of Rome to create the new Empire of Alexandria. The future Augustus conquered at Actium without effort, merely because the national sentiment of the soldiery, outraged by the unforeseen revelation of Antony’s treason, turned against the man who wanted to aggrandize Cleopatra at the expense of his own country.  10
  And then the victorious party, the party of Augustus, created the story of Antony and Cleopatra that has so entertained posterity; this story is but a popular explanation—in part imaginatively exaggerated and fantastic—of the Eastern peril that menaced Rome, of both its political phase and its moral. According to the story that Horace has put into such charming verse, Cleopatra wished to conquer Italy, to enslave Rome, to destroy the Capital; but Cleopatra alone could not have accomplished so difficult a task; she must have seduced Antony, made him forget his duty to his wife, to his legitimate children, to the Republic, the soldiery, his native land,—all the duties that Latin morals inculcated into the minds of the great, and that a shameless Egyptian woman, rendered perverse by all the arts of the Orient, had blotted out in his soul; therefore Antony’s tragic fate should serve as a solemn warning to distrust the voluptuous seductions, of which Cleopatra symbolized the elegant and fatal depravity. The story was magnified, colored, diffused, not because it was beautiful and romantic, but because it served the interests of the political coterie that gained definite control of the government on the ruin of Antony. At Actium, the future Augustus did not fight a real war, he only passively watched the power of the adversary go to pieces, destroyed by its own internal contradictions. He did not decide to conquer Egypt until the public opinion of Italy, enraged against Antony and Cleopatra, required this vengeance with such insistence that he had to satisfy it.  11
  If Augustus was not a man too quick in action, he was, instead, keenly intelligent in comprehending the situation created by the catastrophe of Antony in Italy, where already, for a decade of years, public spirit, frightened by revolution, was anxious to return to the ways of the past, to the historic sources of the national life. Augustus understood that he ought to stand before Italy, disgusted as it was with long-continued dissension and eager to retrace the way of national tradition, as the embodiment of all the virtues his contemporaries set in opposition to Eastern “corruption,”—simplicity, severity of private habits, rigid monogamy, the anti-feministic spirit, the purely virile idea of the state. Naturally, the exaltation of these virtues required the portrayal in his rival of Actium, as far as possible, the opposite defects; therefore the efforts of his friends, like Horace, to color the story of Antony and Cleopatra, which should magnify to the Italians the idea of the danger from which Augustus had saved them at Actium; which was meant to serve as a barrier against the invading Oriental “corruption,” that “corruption” the essence of which I have already analyzed.  12
  In a certain sense, the legend of Antony and Cleopatra is chiefly an anti-feminist legend, intended to reinforce in the state the power of the masculine principle, to demonstrate how dangerous it may be to leave to women the government of public affairs, or follow their counsel in political business.  13

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.